This evening, in a ballpark that will haunt Phillies fans at least until February, a skinny, 31-year-old Arkansan will take the mound in Game 1 of the World Series. This man, despite appearing in only 12 regular season games in a Phillies uniform–by the way, that’s exactly 2/5 as many appearances in Phillies red as Mike Timlin had–has captured our discourse and imaginations on the way to becoming one of the most beloved Phillies of recent memory. There are, no doubt, many Phillies fans who will be rooting for Texas in this World Series for no more complicated reason than “Cliff Lee is starting Game 1.” This despite the Rangers’ addition of Jeff Francoeur, a former Met and Brave who is reviled in these parts, and the presence of Pat Burrell–who was, during his long tenure, a well-liked Phillie in his own right–in the Giants’ lineup.
Of course, Phillies fans adore Lee for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with his 12 regular-season starts. Lee, in the 2009 playoffs, was 5-0 with a 1.56 ERA, 33 strikeouts, and a .460 opponent OPS in five starts and 40 1/3 innings pitched. He twice beat the Yankees in the World Series when no other pitcher could (despite not exactly being possessed of his best stuff in Game 5: 7 IP, 5 ER). Lee appeared out of nowhere and, as much as only one starting pitcher can, carried his team to within two games of a world title. By that measure, he earned every ounce of Phillies’ fans undying and blind admiration.
But remember–just the year before, Cole Hamels went 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA, 30 strikeouts, and a .525 opponent OPS in five starts and 35 innings–not quite as good as Lee, but spectacular in his own right, and remember that Hamels left Game 5 after only 75 pitches when torrential rain and freezing cold made Citizens Bank Park unplayable–there could have been a few more strikeouts and another win on that line had the game continued. Hamels, for his part, not only won the World Series, but collected both NLCS and World Series MVP awards. What’s more, he had been a household name in Philly since he’d been drafted in 2002. But less than a year after he put up that Lee-like performance in the playoffs, Hamels was being assailed by all sectors of Philadelphia sports society. So what’s the difference?
Just about every guy out of high school–girls might be this way too, but, as you might have inferred from the fact that I write for a baseball blog, I don’t know very much about girls–can tell you about the one that got away. Now, in most cases this isn’t the kind of tragic, Patrick Dempsey-movie-fodder it sounds like. In short, there was a girl he had a crush on at some prior point in his life, and he didn’t get to explore a romantic relationship with her to its full conclusion. This could happen for one of a variety of reasons–one of them might have moved away, or they were dating other people and the timing wasn’t right, or maybe he never even got up the courage to ask her out. Whatever the reason, he’ll look back fondly on her and wonder what could have been. It most likely won’t keep him up nights and cause him to write heartbreaking songs for solo acoustic guitar, but there might, from time to time, be a nagging wonder.
In many cases, he’s better off where he is, as I’m certain the Phillies are with Roy Halladay (and if you’re still angry the Phillies couldn’t have had both Lee and Halladay at the same time, well, this metaphor only allows that kind of thing for the very, very lucky, or the very, very 19th-century Mormon). But because he never experienced the rough patches in the relationship, only the highs, he still wonders from time to time.
That, I think, is why Phillies fans have this fixation on Cliff Lee. It’s the wonder of infatuation without the danger of actually having to get to know someone. Who knows? Maybe things would have worked out with Cliff Lee in the long term, but we’ll never know. And maybe it’s better that way–after all, nothing’s more alluring than the unattainable.